Parashat Shemini

The Stork’s Flaw

A large section of Parashat Shemini that we read this Shabbat deals with the laws of kashrut in general, and with the classification of pure and impure animals in particular.

According to the Midrash, man was the first to give names to the birds, the beasts and animals. There is something wonderful in the Hebrew names of some of the animals, names that define their essence as animals. The first man gazed into the deep-down essence of each animal and gave each one its name. The donkey (“Chamor”), for example, is characterized by the hard work it performs, always carrying loads that are heavy and difficult to bear. The name “Chamor” derives from the same root as “Chomer”, that is to say, material. The donkey (“Chamor”) represents the material, physical world. The dog (“Kelev”) is characterized by its abundant heartiness – and its name indeed includes the word “heart” (“Lev”). It even is written in our sources that the name “Chazir” (Pig) comes from the root “Ch.Z.R” – to return – because in the future to come it will chew its cud and it will be a permitted animal.

And what about the stork?

The Vilna Gaon brings us an explanation that the stork is called “Chasida” (Pious) because it always submerses itself in the water after mating. Rashi claims in his commentaries on the Torah that it is called “Chasida” because of its pious behavior (“Chasidut”) of sharing food with its friends.

If all this is so, then why does the Torah include the stork among the impure animals? That doesn’t make sense!

If it performs pious acts – what could be more kosher than that?

In the writings of Rabbi Yitzhak Meir from Gur (the founder of the Gur Hassidic movement in the 19th century) there is a nice explanation concerning this matter. The generosity of the stork is restricted to its immediate circle of friends and totally disregards those who are not a part of its small group. This is not the kind of piety that Judaism believes in. Therefore, the bird is impure.

I don’t know whether from a zoological standpoint this is true, but it doesn’t really matter. Rabbi Yitzhak Meir from Gur says that to be pious and to be Tzadik are not necessarily the same thing.

Ten years ago I worked as a Rabbi for Jewish prisoners in the main prison in Buenos Aires. Over the course of two years, every week I provided spiritual support to criminals, Jewish thieves and even murderers, who sat in prison (some of them) for more than ten years. One of the lessons that I learned from this experience is that there is no limit to the loyalty of man, even in a setting such as this.

I remember once arriving at the prison during the intermediate days of Pesach. We were supposed to celebrate the Feast of Freedom there, of all places – and so I had brought matzah and prepared food from home for the occasion. However, when I arrived, I learned that one of the prisoners was on a hunger strike…and no one wanted to eat as a sign of identification with their friend’s struggle. They were criminals, stole, cheated and even murdered. Yet they still knew the meaning of friendship and loyalty….

I read an interesting piece of research about the lives of vampire bats. It appears that if one bat doesn’t succeed in obtaining blood one night, another bat that did succeed (and is a part of its group or “family”) will donate some of its blood to the hungry bat. The bat that succeeds in finding a “victim” sucks blood representing 50% - 100% of its body weight, and he requires this amount on a nightly basis. However, if upon returning he finds a hungry “relative”, he will contribute part of his blood to the hungry bat until be can find a victim to suck its blood. This is a basic instinct needed for survival.

In any case, the bat cannot be considered a merciful animal because of this, since he remains cruel and bloodthirsty.

To be pious and to be a Tzadik are not necessarily the same.
That is the flaw of the stork.

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